Excited to see the announcement of a new global design ideas competition from LA+ Journal, entitled Imagination.
“Paradisiacal, utopian, dystopian, heterotopian – islands hold an especially enigmatic and beguiling place in our geographical imagination. Existing in juxtaposition to what’s around them, islands are figures of otherness and difference. Differentiated from their contexts and as much myth as reality, islands have their own rules, their own stories, their own characters, their own ecologies, and their own forms.”
This design ideas competition asks you to create a new island. You can locate it anywhere in the world, program it any way you want, and give it any form you can imagine. The jury consists of Richard Weller, James Corner, Marion Weiss, Matthew Gandy, Javier Arpa and Mark Kingwell, and prize pool is $10,000 plus feature publication in the special issue of LA+.
I thought Bélanger’s essay ‘Synthetic Surfaces’ in the Landscape Urbanism Reader, was interesting, and was interested to see the work as well from he and others around this topic. For starters, some context, via the blurb snipped below on Amazon:
“”If landscape is more than milieu or environment, and encompasses a deterritorialized world, then it is the contested territory, hidden actor, and secret agent of the twentieth century. Stemming from the early work of some of the most influential landscape urbanists–Frank Lloyd Wright, Ludwig Hilberseimer, Benton MacKaye, Patrick Geddes–this mini manifesto explores underdeveloped patterns and unfinished processes of urbanization at the precise moment when environmentalism began to fail and ecology emerged between the 1970s and 80s. Informed by systems thinking from the modern atomic age, this slim silver pamphlet takes inspiration from Howard T. Odum’s big green book A Tropical Rain Forest and brings alive the voices of a group of influential thinkers to exhume a body of ideas buried in the fallout of the explosion of digitalism, urbanism and deconstructivism during the early 1990s. Catalyzed by Chernobyl’s nuclear reactor meltdown, a counter-modernity and neo-urbanism emerged from the fall of the Berlin wall and the end of South African Apartheid. What happened during this concentrated era and area of change–across design, from architecture to planning–is nothing short of revolutionary.”
The opening essays start provide some more context, and the crux is really what is said about the timing of the emergence of ecology in the 70s and 80s and how this is now fully integrated, after almost 50 years, into practice. I do want to find a copy of Odum’s ‘A Tropical Rain Forest‘ after reading the introductory info – perhaps the biggest gem this small volume offers.
Readers should be warned, this is not a trifle, but a dense exploration with a number of unexplained references and jargon – the kind of stuff that makes people roll their eyes and dismiss academic posturing as oh so much BS. Frankly the intro is probably one of the most annoying passages I’ve read in a while and the first sections were equally obtuse. It evens out a bit as you continue, but coupled with way too small text and only black and white imagery, it’s a bit of a slog. As in not enjoyable to read or engage in.
So if you’re still with me – check out the diagrams, and maybe read a section or two. When you get into them, are quite beautiful and the text has value – exploring some of the themes of landscape and infrastructure from Keller Easterling and Sanford Kwinter. Go to well lit room, with a magnifying glass and a lot of coffee and have fun.
I was initially put off by the reliance on only black and white imagery, as it seems anachronistic, more of a trope than a reason for its use in this particularly context. But they work and the idea of communication that transcends color – in these densely packed montages attempt to communicate a ton of info – sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. Probably the best part of this volume – sometimes it’s amazing and you find yourself staring at a page for way too long. If they were 2x as big it’d be even better.
So as far as the takeaway for he at this point, I’m really intrigued by the graphics, and some of the experimentation. While i was initially put off by the black at white imagery, as i mentioned, but after looking at it multiple times, and viewing digital images, it does have a quality that perhaps obscured by our typical splashes of color.
Even as a pamphlet – the writings, well, I feel would have benefited greatly from a tougher editor that reined in some of the language and obscure references. I’ve read enough academic and dense writings that i can muddle through the most difficult, so I definitely don’t need my hand held. But there were so many opportunities to add one small explanation of a concept, rather than just leave the reader hanging, or googling, to understand some obscure reference or word choice. Belanger’s other writings didn’t seem so hard to parse. This was exhausting.
If you read it let me know what you thing. Got some ideas or thoughts. Let me know.
A recent post from CityLab delves into an on-going. Entitled ‘Are ‘Treescrapers the Future of Dense Urban Living?’, explores the concept beyond the fantastical and thinks about this type of work in terms of reality and the more pragamatic elements. Weird Dune references about Passive House designers (?) aside, having some critical evaluation the points that were brought up by the architect in the story are valid.
I do think that the focus of the comments maybe relied a bit too much on the particular type of work (i.e. hyper efficient building envelope). If you see everything through the lens of Passive House, and energy envelopes and embodied energy for structural upgrades, you may miss the trees and the forest.
Admittedly, I am both a supporter and critic of the idea, which I’ve been referring to as Vegitecture (not Treescraping, for hopefully obvious reasons) for some time now. Beyond being an aesthetic choice which has strong biophilic connections, there’s ecological and even, yes, energy considerations with integrating vegetation into buildings. It’s definitely a key strategy for a less building centric idea of passive heating and cooling, which has to me has always included vegetation surrounding structures as part of the equation – using evergreen vegetation to block colder winter winds and shade for cooling and deciduous to provide summer shading and opening up during winter for additional heating/sun after leaf drop. That diagram I think i first say in first year intro to landscape architecture.
Of course everything comes at a cost, so an accounting of cost to benefit is necessary, but that cost also much include other items in the ledger, like health benefits of access to nature, additional passive cooling and heating benefits that could be integrated with exterior and interior system integration. The opportunity is to make these projects work and think of new ways to better integrate them into the buildings in artful and functional ways.
I’ve discussed typologies before, and it’s interesting to see the evolution of the types, from building integrated living walls above, to terrace planters, roofs decks, more traditional green roofs, and much more. The possibilities in photoshop, alas, are endless. But in reality, there are some additional considerations, all of which should be taken into account. Some more images of green on buildings – nothing new here on this blog. More at the original post on CityLab as well
And these definitely trend towards the fantastic, which is part of the reconciliation between what can actually work and what looks cool in a rendering. So, yes, that involves messy practicalities the additional structural loading, and how to incorporate thermal breaks, and many others like how to maintain vegetation, how to irrigation, issues of wind uplift, leaf litter, structural capacity, and many more. Great discussions, and necessary ones, as we grow and evolve the concept.
I’ve mentioned a few times on Twitter, I have had an on-going interest in game design as a medium, but also in relation to the potential synergistic overlaps between the technology/techniques with landscape architecture and urbanism practice. The most obvious connection has to do with visual representation, as the ability to create engaging site and building environments is clearly , but there are some interesting opportunities for educational tools, user experience, ecological and urban modeling, scenario building, and iterative design.
Growing up with gaming, a trio of interactions early in college defined the concept and hooked me into the potential in an interesting way – even 20+ years ago. The first was a game my sister and i were obsessed with, Myst. Building on the word-based computer games from the 80’s like Adventureland and Pirate Adventure, Myst came out in 1991 and provided a graphical environment (that at the time was incredible) along with a mystery and things that needed to be observed and unlocked.
The interactivity and lack of linear timeline, which included puzzles and problem solving was great for some obsessive teens, but showed that games didn’t have to be either violent or proscriptive. The follow-up Riven in 1997 had better graphics and another story.
The second was for a urban planning class, we were giving a quarter long Sim City game simulation and discussed progress in class, as a way to explore ideas. Those of the certain age will appreciate the 2D top down version of Sim City, as we were doing this initially in 1993:
The scenarios allowed us to employ principles of urban simulation, think through the concepts, and then starting the clock and see how things evolved, or more likely devolved. To use this for class was transformative. The graphics have come a long way, indeed, since then, as this recent Sim City graphic below shows, with the more prototypical 3D Axonometric we think of with the game.
The technology seems akin now to some of the less game and more GIS specific tools for scenario-building in programs like ESRI’s City Engine (more on that that and GeoDesign here). On the flip side of the Sim City was geeky kid favorite Doom, the immersive and ultraviolent 3D game that literally and figuratively blew away gamers at the time.
In addition to an addictive, networked game play, there was an added feature of a back end tool to create worlds Doom Builder – which paired a bit of Dungeons and Dragons graph paper mapping with rudimentary 3D graphic world creation. The difference of course is, once done with the creation, you could play your creation.
THE SOPHISTICATED BEAUTY OF GAMES
It’s easy to dismiss gaming as a medium for geek culture with little relevance to the lofty ambitions of the architecture/urbanism endeavor. But there’s a lot more to it that shooting thing and bloddy violence. As shown above, there’s potential for wonder and problem solving, urban planning education, world building, and yes, lots of bloody violence. Guess it’s a good metaphor for life, right?
But, the ubiquity and size of gaming culture goes beyond a few teen to twenty-somethings playing violent FPS games. The size of the industry is worth billions. And that revenue is diverse. The demographic for the prototypical first person shooter is probably more focused, but there are men & women, young and old, across races that participate in some what in gaming culture.
The few recent games that have blown me away recently provide some context. First, the simplicity and beauty of Monument Valley – as probably first seen on House of Cards, which in addition to fictional presidents, appeals to designers and architects (especially those with a fondness for Escher), with atmospheric graphics and more literally puzzles to solve. The games are challenging enough to engage but not so hard as to frustrate. It’s a lot of magic.
Shifting gears to more modern FPS games, one of the first games i discovered in recent years was Bioshock Infinite, a much hyped and controversial game that wove through a fictional universe of a floating city of Columbia on a quest of sorts. Atmospheric and with a great, detailed backstory, the legend that the game exists within is compelling. The graphics complements the narrative with quasi-realism and a fuzzy, dream like quality.
The predecessor Bioshock also had an amazingly creative environment, which in converse to Columbia City was the underwater city of Rapture lending to a more moody and claustrophobic emotional state.
Both of the Bioshock games are, as well, incredibly violent, which takes away somewhat from the exploration and appreciation of scenery, but makes for some excitement.
A beautiful game in terms of the subtle environment is the graphic but non-shooting murder mystery, The Vanishing of Ethan Carter. The player wanders through a landscape and abandoned town to find clues and unlock the secret of what happened. It’s emotional and you feel it, the scenery and soundscape lending to the drama.
As images, these don’t do justice to the feeling you get from these environments, which have subtle motion and great mixing of ambient sounds. For anyone new or interested in gaming, who wants to experience what a well crafted, non-shooter, modern game can be, this would be a good one. I included a video so you can see the experience:
For me it’s not a stretch to jump from these narrative stories to having the ability to explore a project site or potential design. I see the above image of the rail tracks, and immediately it evokes a simulation of exploring the High Line, both before and after construction. And not just exploring, but interacting, seeing motion and complexity. With simple visual cues This game evokes that feeling.
Finally, a more recent game released in installments is Life is Strange, which follows a third person graphic adventure of a teenage girl in an odd Oregon town. She is able to unlock events by rewinding time, which allows you to make different decisions and see how that impacts outcomes.
Check out here for more on the plotline, but the graphics again reinforce the mood. It also offers a slighly different game interaction, with a sketchy white line graphic that appears when something is of note either on the object or as subtle cues. I also love in this case there’s a proto-realism – it’s got a tinge of cartoon to it, but is also brilliant at capturing mood and the mundane.
The sophistication of these games in terms of environments, aesthetics, and narrative draw you in. There’s not a feeling of immersion, although i’d love to see some of the graphics in a VR rig, but your are 100% immersed in both the story, and, when it doesn’t get in the way, the graphical interface, also known as the HUD, or human user interface. It’s a big deal, this interface, and millions have probably been spent on making it seamless. While specialized controls and rigs are used, they are available to a few. For most, there’s simple touch or mouse input, whereas the line between the user and environment is very distinct.
A game, of course, is a constructed world with a narrative already baked in. And there are likely many more examples out there that make the point that games can be both defined broadly and offer a very close connection to the world building of landscape architecture and urbanism. While it’s possible to offer free movement and discovery in these games, in the end there’s a series of tasks, events, actions required to move from start to finish. It’d be a dull game indeed where you just walked around in an environment with no purpose.
That said, the approach may be different, and the way the environments are used may also vary, but the fact is that these games give visual examples 1) constructed worlds, 2) the ability to freely explore these worlds, 3) animated objects that also exist in these worlds, and 4) a measure of emotion and mood that is derived from real environments and landscapes. In this way, they become similar to visualization in a design medium. Thinking of this less as a narrative
There are many tools out there focused on game development, all of which blend tools for creating environments, coding behaviors, and developing user interface. The one I’ve spent the most amount of time working with is Unreal Engine, which is amazingly, now a free to use suite of tools (with a royalty structure set up to capture revenue). An example of the tool in an architectural setting, is the Unreal Paris, a video tour that came out a year ago, showing a highly photorealistic scene done in Unreal Engine, which shows the level of detail that is typically available in static rendering now being employed in a space that is both fully 3d and fully interactive.
It’s a bigger stretch to expand this beyond the enclosed architectural space, and delve into the landscape. The complexity of materials and motions in the entire apartment is probably less than a single tree, thus, to me, this is the holy grail. The seemingly large gap between architectural rendering and landscape is immense. However, this is changing. To see the potential of the technology, Epic Games did a very impressive video on their ‘Kite Demo’ seen below.
It’s a really nice animation, akin to a Pixar movie, with some stunning visuals. The part that’s not evident is that this environment is a fully realized world, which you could right now, dive into and be able to explore every square inch, through multiple platforms from game systems and virtual reality rigs. The concept that it’s not just a static, linear progression, but an actual, virtual world, is the wow moment. Because, as a landscape, while not perfect, it’s head and shoulders about anything i’ve seen in 3D landscape architectural visualization. The level of detail and size of this world gives you a taste of the potential for landscape to be transformed by these tools.
While the demo itself is impressive, if you want to dig into the specifics, there’s a longer demo from GDC 2015 that goes in-depth in some of the technology uses to create the demo assets and put them all together. It’s geeky, it’s technical, and it’s amazing.
As shown, there’s a strong visual component to this type of work that fits nicely into landscape architecture production, but it’s interesting to think of some uses that expand the notion and potential for exploration and movement. The potential for specificity, as you see with the second more detailed video, isn’t relegated to a generic library of materials, but can be augmented with a range of scanning and capture tools, such as detailed photogrammetry that yields highly realistic assets.
There’s a healthy competition between game engines, with Unity competing with Unreal Engine for pros and amateurs alike, with companies adapting or creating their own engines to fit, and a range of other free and adaptable tools based on what you like and your goals. As i mentioned, i spent time with Unreal Engine mostly, but all of them have pros and cons (in terms of horsepower, learning curves, etc) – and technology is vital to this as i found out, as i could do some basic world creation and programming, but soon found my older desktop puttering with the high graphic demands. Be forewarned, this doesn’t just open up on your current machine and go, there’s potentially an investment of time (in training) and resources (in techology) to fully unlock the potential.
The beauty of all of these systems (which are all similar in features with some variations) isn’t just the end result. The high graphic quality and immersive end result that is nimble enough to run in real time is seen in the game examples above. The tools are very sophisticated, with the ability to import and manipulate 3d assets from other worlds, create new assets, locate and building ‘levels’ in game parlance. With libraries of elements and compatibility with other programs like Maya, Mudbox, etc. (SketchUp is pretty tough to get to work though).
The back-end is where there’s a lot of beauty, with the scripting language and programming adding the dimension of interactivity to the environments. As you see below, the Unreal Engine uses a feature called Blueprint, which is a scripting environment that is based on automation of the C++ code, and is useful for non-programmers to be able to literally connect the dots on to create triggers, interactions, events, and other ‘life’ to the scenes. At a simplest level, you can take an object and give it action, such as the ability to turn on a light when a character gets within a certain distance, or to trigger sounds, or have other character’s act. Any action can be scripted in a non-linear, interactive way to create sophisticated environments.
And the specific elements for rigging characters, which can be added as main characters, either people that you can interact with, or imbuing more lively entourage into a scene.
Admittedly there’s some lag in the quality of these, as we’re far from life-life, but they are much improved. Call it more Pixar than reality but with a lot of interesting gestures, facial controls, and the ability for lifelike actions.
In relation to landscape, another worth discussing is Speedtree, who creates cross platform vegetation for gaming as well as film (hell, they just won an Oscar!). The tools allow customization of every aspect of trees, both in off the shelf libraries (which i’ve used) and a custom editor to create any type of vegetation (which I haven’t used, but is compelling). Gone are the days of cartoony vegetation, and the sophistication of the algorithms allow these to render in high quality and even incorporate wind, lead drop, and more w/o draining graphic resources (as also discussed above in the Unreal GDC video), something that high poly count vegetation seems to persistently be problematic.
Jumping out a scale to the overall terrain, the ability to create specific context is key to creation of these realistic environments. One that i used a bit is World Machine, a terrain modelling program that allows you to import topography from existing digital elevation models (DEMs) as well as to create custom features, and integrate geologic phenomena such as slides, erosion from wind and water, and other features.
These help by providing distant terrain that interacts with the other more close up assets along with sophisticated ‘level of detail’ or LOD settings that provide realistic close up information, including motion, then slowly stepping down resolution in levels, as the view gets further away. The addition of atmosphere and really amazing lighting tools, adds to the perspective focusing and gives depth as well as life to scenes. This allows for efficient use of computing resources to but the action where its most needed. The results are simple but stunning.
Another one i that i learned about more recently is Lumion, which we use at my office. I’ve seen some of the renderings but haven’t dove into using it myself, but it seems to integrate with much of what other game engines do, and perhaps more seamlessly. It is based on game engine technology, but has the added advantage of being focused on architectural visualization with tools to integrate directly with industry standard Revit.
A short video shows how it works.
And some of the results:
So as you seen, even in this short snapshot, there are a ton of resources, and many more i don’t know about of haven’t covered. This brain dump of a lot of ideas that definitely could use more exploration, but i wanted to close out the thought by giving some context on why i think all this, geekery aside, matters. The takeaway is that there is a ton of potential to disrupt and expand practice, if we can expand methods of visualization and adopt some of these techniques. On that note, a few thoughts that are worth further exploration:
Immersive technology, utilizing controller and VR rigs to allow clients and users to experience the design in a number of ways, while also allowing designers opportunities to fine-tune spatial relationships and test environments.
Rules based ecological scenarios, which allow for natural processes (vegetative colonization, competition, dispersal) that provides simulations of open-ended landscape concepts.
Topical games to create better understanding of system interactions and engage larger populations, such as stormwater, infrastructure, climate change.
Have thoughts and other examples and stories, or know of folks in the industry working and using these tools? Let me know.
A fine addition to the ranks of landscape architecture journals that recently emerged is LA+, The Interdisciplinary Journal of Landscape Architecture, from the Penn. From the website, the journal is billed as the “…the first truly interdisciplinary journal of landscape architecture. Within its pages you will hear not only from designers, but also from historians, artists, lawyers, psychologists, ecologists, planners, scientists, philosophers, and many more besides. Our aim at LA+ is to reveal connections and build collaborations between landscape architecture and other disciplines by exploring each issue’s theme from multiple perspectives.”
Interest piqued. And they were nice enough to send me a copy of their inaugural issue, WILD which “…explores the concept of WILD and its role in design, large-scale habitat and species conservation, scientific research, the human psyche, and aesthetics.”
Impressively curated and designed, this is a journal you keep around in your library long-term, for a follow-up read or to peruse the beautiful imagery. As an introduction on the website, a short thesis on issue one:
“Wildness has long occupied a romantic and somewhat dormant position in the discussion of landscape theory and practice. However, current initiatives aiming to “rewild” rural, urban, and suburban environments attest to its renewed significance. It is no longer just a question of saving or protecting wilderness, but one of how we can design novel ecosystems that stimulate the emergence of new forms of biological and cultural diversity.”
The list of contributors is massive, and the breadth of topics ranges from the general, such as Mick Abbott’s ‘Practice of the Wild: A Rewilding of Landscape Architecture’, to the global, such as Richard Weller’s ‘World P-ark’, to the site-specific, like Mousseau & Moller’s ‘Landscape-Scale Consequences of Nuclear Disasters.” I offered to do a review of the issue, and realized quickly that it was no simple task due to the amount of material contained within (which alas, i’m still reading with much enjoyment).
Thus, it is far more that can be elaborated on in terms of full reporting on every essay. For that, order a copy and enjoy the density of information. Here’s a few snippets and thoughts of my own, in relation to landscape architecture practice and how the explorations of this concept seen through the interdisciplinary lens.
The concept of the wild is present in our conception of landscape architecture practice at many scales. The vision of a global park (or Ark) as Richard Weller discusses, provides the context for connected ecological corridors that connect globally across countries and continents, providing a shared concept of our earth that hopefully transcends borders. As mentioned, a north/south and east/west route “… could catalyze global cooperation and environmental investment to help augment connections between fragments along the way.” (16)
To look at the controversial and compelling issue of rewilding, as Adela Park does, is to investigate our core relationships about native-ness, genetic engineering, and our role in not just preserving, and enhancing but in recreating extinct systems as well as creating new natural systems. The ability to connect or open up large swaths of land as wild spaces are tame in comparison to global examples like the Oostvaardersplassen in the Netherlands and the Pleistocene Park in Siberia, both of which plan the creation of lost landscapes left in a state of unmanagement. As mentioned, “…landscapes such as Oostvaardersplassen – created almost entirely by scientists – embody the very indeterminacy and self-organizational potential that has been so much a part of recent landscape architecture discourse. “ (8)
The topic of wildlife and habitat is at play throughout, with the synergistic and conflicted relationships between humans and animals accentuated in multiple ways. We want interaction with nature at a distance, such as the artistic wildlife viewing structure, the Reindeer Pavilion covered in Claire Fellman in ‘Watching Wild’. We also want interaction through consumption as investigated in ‘The Taste of the New Wild’ by Orkan Telhan.
A popular strategy to engage the wild is through provision of wildlife crossings of busy roadways . as outlined by Nina-Marie Lister in ‘Xing: New Infrastructures for Landscape Connectivity,’ a movement growing in popularity worldwide and the knowledge of interdisciplinary approaches to what works is shaping the design of these systems.
The ability to predict and proactively engage with the ‘wild’ in this context, offers a new area of interest for designers and integrated teams. As Lister mentions:
“By redesigning the road for two clients – animal and human – wildlife crossing infrastructure presents a timely opportunity to communicate both the problem and the solution to the public. In this endeavor, landscape architecture has a significant new niche and a potent role role in designing safer roads with new infrastructures that are visible and legible, even beautiful. Widespread deployment of this new typology of landscape infrastructure may ultimately change the way we move and live, and with this, reconnect landscapes and habitats through inspired design.” (50)
A specific topic of interest in our northwest fire season, it was interesting to read Steve Pyne’s essay ‘Firescaping’, which provides a meditation on fire as part of our ongoing landscape, and how to think differently about our relationship to fire, and the implications and opportunities of this in the context of global climate change.
As he mentions, “We can protect our built landscape where it abuts the wild… After all, our cities used to burn as often as their surroundings; now they don’t. The same methods, adapted, can work along the fractal frontier of exurban settlement.” (97) With much of the west currently burning, the concept of wild does hit home with multiple meanings – directly related to design and management of landscapes.
As I mentioned, lots more content to devour, thus a full accounting of the contents of the first issue of LA+ would occupy multiple posts. Look out for some follow-up on some topics of interest expanding upon these and other themes, and if you’re interested, submit your work in their most recent call for papers.
And highly recommended to get a subscription to this to journal for topical, integrated ideas that shape the fabric of landscape architecture and urbanism.
I’m happy to be able to share some information on Geodesign from mapping and visualization rock-star Nadia Amoroso. I’ve really enjoyed following her work over the years, and did a thorough exploration of her amazing book The Exposed City: Mapping the Urban Invisibles, back in 2010 (here) and also posted about her work on Data Appeal, a mapping and visualization software tool for making map landscapes in 2011. On my list is to check out her most recent book, Representing Landscapes: Digital, (2015 – Foreword by James Corner) which looks at the cutting edge visual techniques for graphic communication focused specifically on landscape architecture.
Nadia is still hard at work in the mapping and visualization realms – and let me know of some of the work she’s been doing around Geodesign, particularly employing some new digital mapping tools that greater expand this potential. The following post includes a good overview of Geodesign and it’s potential to application in Urban Design and Landscape Architecture contexts. Enjoy!
Geodesign Concept and its Solution Platform for Urban Design and Landscape Architecture
GIS (Geographic Information Systems) is important part of the urban planning and urban design process. GIS has often been associated with science, and not so much on design. Geodesign offers to shake up the notion of GIS. Geodesign provides a design framework and supporting technology for design professionals to leverage geographic information, resulting in designs that more closely follow site and natural systems. 
Geodesign is a new way of thinking about the design process, utilizing site data with software such as a GIS (Geographic Information System) to create urban or landscape designs. The Wikipedia’s entry on Geodesign states that ” Geodesign is a set of techniques and enabling technologies for planning built and natural environments in an integrated process, including project conceptualization, analysis, design specification, stakeholder participation and collaboration, design creation, simulation, and evaluation (among other stages). “
Michael Flaxman, former MIT Professor and CEO of Geodesign Technologies, states that “Geodesign is a design and planning method which tightly couples the creation of design proposals with impact simulations informed by geographic contexts.” 
Professor Carl Steinitz, Professor of Landscape Architecture and Planning, Emeritus, brought to the limelight the geodesign framework for landscape architects and designers of the built environment, by posing a series of fundamental questions that as designers of the built environment, should think about and address. Refer to the “Geodesign Framework- by Carl Steinitz” for the summary of questions.
ESRI Inc, (the global mapping and GIS company, based in Redlands California), has created a geodesign solution platform (suite of software) that is specifically tailored for the landscape architecture and urban design industries, in order to make strategic urban designs and landscape plans.
Jack Dangermond, the founder and President of Esri, studied landscape architecture at Harvard’s GSD. He has tapped into his landscape architecture roots and is revolutionizing the concept of geodesign for landscape architecture, architecture, planning and urban design fields. Dangermond claims that, “Geodesign is about integrating geographic knowledge with the spatial design process…..design with nature, or geodesign, is our next evolutionary step.”
Esri now hosts an annual Geodesign Summit where landscape architects, architects, academics, urban and transportation planners, and leading though leaders in the industry come together to learn and share their experiences on how the geodesign technology solution platform is being used to make and create smarter cities and sustainable landscapes.
Technology wise, think of CAD, BIM, GIS all in one. Esri offers a suite of software from 2D mapping to 3D modeling as part of the Geodesign solutions, which combines sketching and modeling tools with the power of data, GIS and high quality renderings. The Geodesign Platform includes mainly the following suite of applications:
GeoPlanner for ArcGIS, which is a web-based, easy to use sketching and mapping tool to design scenarios. It leverages geo-based dataand supports all the steps of land-based planning and urban design. This includes sketching and designing scenarios (design alternatives), understanding the impact of your designs, perform site and spatial analysis and compare alternative designs.
ArcGIS Pro which is a robust desktop application which render and process data faster than ever. The software allows you to design and edit your concepts in 2D and 3D with multiple view ports. You can perform 3d site analysis like wind analysis, shade/ shadow analysis, circulation patterns, density, view-shed analysis. Designers can add realistic trees, buildings and infrastructures quickly.
CityEngine which is a 3D modeling software which leverages parametric modeling and geo-based data to create evidence-based city and landscape designs. CityEngine creates high quality renderings. CityEngine allows you to import your urban design proposals within existing built urban context in CityEngine. Using parametric and rule procedures, the landscape architect can create, change and test mass modeling to comply with zoning regulations; test shadow area; create detailed streetscapes and create quality public realm It offers intuitive and effective tools for façade and landscape texturing, adding landscape elements and various tree species. CityEngine provides perspective correction to capture the right views. CityEngine is integrated with ArcGIS.
All these tools provide real-time feedback on your changing design concepts.
Geodesign combines site and nature “with design by providing designers with robust tools that support rapid evaluation of design alternatives against the impacts of those designs. Geodesign infuses design with a blend of science- and value-based information to help designers, planners, and stakeholders make better-informed decisions….[the geodesign platform] offers geospatial modeling, impact simulations, and real-time feedback to facilitate holistic designs and smart decisions.”
The Esri’s Geodesign Platform is a critical toolkit for urban design and landscape architecture, as a means to make smart design decisions.
As mentioned, it would be worth while to explore some essays of the Projective Ecologies book, and what better way to start than with the introductory essay by Reed and Lister, Parallel Genealogies.
The terms ‘ecologies’ and ‘ecosystems’ are co-opted for a variety of uses today beyond event these, which could lead to the eye-rolling misappropriation and leave us scrambling for a different term. The word/concept is by nature cool. It sounds cool, it’s integrative and connective, holistic and systemic, so of course it will be integrated into the lexicon to describe such things as media ecosystems, startup ecosystems, digital ecosystems, and others, predominately in the tech world. Our gut reaction is to say ugh and come up with something new – resilience, regenerative, biophilic, etc. that hasn’t been corrupted, but ecology, in the true sense and applicablility, is still a valid construct. I say rather than abandon it, we take it back.
The parallel genealogies of the title are woven around ecology, and the interconnections between the natural sciences, the humanities and design. These are broken down in turn, evolving the concepts from scientific roots of ecosystem and population ecology, through the connections of ecology to environmentalism which has led to it’s more popular usage. The crux is a shift from, linear, deterministic ‘climax’ models to more of a focus on “open-endedness, flexibility, resilience, and adaptation… ecosystems are now understood to be open systems and behave in ways that are self-organizing and that are to some extend unpredictable. ” In that vein (25):
“…change is built into living systems; they are characterized in part by uncertainty and dynamism.”
This makes it more difficult to understand, but infinitely more interesting, as things change and move in systems, leading to conceptual metaphors like mosaics which are compelling to scientists and lay-people (especially designers). The application of ecological principles – beyond mere observation – implies the agency of humans, thus making our impacts become impossible to ignore. We also tend to want to act in healing degraded areas, which requires sufficient data to make the correct course corrections.
Do we possess, or can we possess, adequate information to counterbalance the human-impacted changes in climate that have (Katrina, Sandy) and will influence millions? We can’t not act, but with what information and certainty? As the authors point out, the concept shifts “toward complex system thinking is to realize that we cannot manage whole ecosystems; rather, we can manage ourselves and our activities… [which] will have profound implications for the way we design.” (27)
The second genealogy focuses on the humanities (which i would maybe broaden to include many social elements) in solidifying our connections to the natural world. Similar to deterministic linear ecological models, the way we live and govern ourselves, as in the text, quoting Botkin: “our management practices must adapt themselves to this new scientific understanding of the world – that principles of order, control, and limits will eventually doom the very things we want to protect.” (29)
Our connection to nature, or the wild, is slipping somewhat in an age of hypercommunication and technological fascination, which is maybe an extension of our overcoming the fear of the wild by naming, and then taming what we once feared. Or maybe we just stare at phones too much. In perhaps a counterargument to the naming of places, is the idea of experience, as argued by Neil Evernden, in The Social Creation of Nature’ where “…he argues for qualities, as opposed to nameable things, that might describe that which exists beyond human control.” (30)
“Wildness is not ‘ours’ — indeed, it is the one that that can never be ours. It is self-willed, independent, and indifferent to our dictates and judgements. An entity with the quality of wildness is its own, and no others’s”
And finally with design, and the historical origins of ecological planning traced in the modern sense to McHarg in the 1960s (but built on many, many others before him). The quantitative as a design strategy was, and indeed still is, somewhat of a foreign concept, that has weathered the art v. science debates, but did galvanize a concept of designing with nature that still evokes joy when spoken aloud. The language of the ecological – still vivid today – evokes visions that easily spur design intention. R.T.T. Forman gave a new language to landscape architects, thinking about “matrices, webs, and networks… characterized by adjacencies, overlaps, and juxtapositions.” This took us beyond the simple overlay into the concept of change and flux, or as mentioned “Adaptation, appropriation, and flexibility, which became understood as the hallmarks of ‘successful’ systems.” (33)
The examples start to emerge, with no perfect exemplar but many worth studying for elements or processes worthy of emulation. The work of Haag, Hargreaves, and numerous earthwork artists used the armature, language and symbolism of nature into works, and also left (gasp) things unfinished somewhat, with slight references to indeterminacy, which dovetailed so well into the best aspects of landscape urbanism theory. Thus the spatial fields of Koolhaas/OMA at Parc de la Vilette, or the work of Desvigne and Dalnoky, which “set out strategies in which growth, succession, and careful editing of newly planted urban or industrial forests could be seen to reintroduce environmental dynamics into sites and projects that had erased – or at least significantly dampened – ecological effects.” (36)
It’s not a hands-off ecological succession, but strategic ‘curation’ that works for the ecological and the cultural, and the binary notion of nature and human. This led nicely into works by Allen, Corner, and further competitions such as Downsview Park, Freshkills Landfill, and others to solidify an interdisciplinary, graphically rich, and temporally based approach to landscape architecture. While the framing of it and subsequent labeling as landscape urbanism may have not stuck in it’s original sense, the literature of LU is the best that’s come out of the profession in a decade. My opinion is the book we’re reading is the next iteration (or maybe continuation) of that concept.
Beyond the theoretical, the shift toward application of these projects (not just competitions but works being built) offers a validation of the action-oriented approach that connects ecology, humanity, and design in ways that have rarely been accomplished. New approaches, ecological awareness, understanding of hybrid and novel ecosystems, the role and result of humans as parts of these system – coupled with new technology – leads to a new urban ecological paradigm. The book, and this first essay, continues the conversation, “toward a more rigorous, robust, and relevant engagement across the domains of ecology and design – one to be fully explored in the coming years.” (38)
I’ll probably skip next the Corner essay as it has been covered extensively (but feel free to comment or guest post welcome!) – and jump to Hight’s essay on Designing Ecologies. Stay tuned and comment on your thoughts on this essay below.
A recent conversation with a colleague reminded me of one of the best books of 2014 — Projective Ecologies, a collaboration between Chris Reed and Nina-Marie Lister that brought together a number of essays both new and old an framed the ideas in some interesting ways.
You can also read an adaptation of this first chapter from this article in Design Observer from mid-April. The book has been covered by other places, such as a quick guest post overview here in The Dirt.
Fold out paper maps and diagrams are stuffed in a pocket in the back of the volume – to show some more detail on images found in the books thematic interludes, which are ready made for some LA student studio desk.
There was some redundancy of essays that were previous published elsewhere, that are maybe worth a re-read – but the new content is worth the time for perhaps the necessary extension of the dialogue on Landscape Urbanism from a few years back, both in new ideas and relevant old ideas.
As with most things it makes sense to break it down into pieces so an essay by essay overview seems in order. Anyone else reading this or read it last year, feel free to contribute ideas in the comments section? I’ll periodically post some ideas from the essays.
A great post on the The Dirt from a couple of months back delves into a topic near and dear to my thoughts on landscape architecture and urbanism – particularly how do we blend science and design in meaningful ways. The article “Teaching Ecological Restoration (Not Restoration Ecology) includes the new Temple University concentration in ecological restoration as part of their dialogue, namely that there must be application ‘on-the-ground’ of ecological principles. As noted by Temple faculty John Munro, he’s concerned that the Society for Ecological Restoration “…is moving away from its focus on practical, on-the-ground, ecological restoration projects in favor of more passive, “academic research on restoration ecology.” and that, “many restoration ecologists can no longer “see the forest for the statistics.””.
The issue of relevant knowledge for practitioners is valid, as a typical undergraduate program is going to focus on the fundamental items that a student needs to gain a thorough and holistic understanding of the profession. Further refinement and advancement (specialization) happens through on-the-job experience and continuing education, as well as more formally through masters and PhD studies, where advanced research methods, both quantitative and qualitative are added to the toolkit. There is a limit in practical terms, as the education and specialist knowledge takes away from one’s general knowledge base, and is the preferred role of landscape architecture to be the experts or the synthesizers of information?
The article quotes Emily McCoy from Andropogon, stating that: “landscape architects are finally beginning to take seriously the idea of measuring ecosystem function.” They are also beginning to “take the best scientific information and apply them to landscape design.” This is challenging because landscape architects are not trained in statistics so can’t truly understand landscape function. This means they need to work with restoration ecologists or environmental designers.”
Although i might take issue at the lack of statistics education equating to “can’t truly understand landscape function.” I get the intent, and this reference to statistics is a good one. Many (most?) types of research rely on some sort of applied research methods, particularly sciences. Statistics is often used, but very few landscape architects have this level of knowledge. We may begin to integrate these methods in LA education, but it will still be a far cry from the amount of work (just in general hours of class time and training) required to perform and understand, as advanced level statistics is not for the faint of heart.
Do we want that knowledge, or do we, as mentioned, look to work more with the appropriate scientists, in order to provide the right mix of art and science required for complex contemporary work. If we need that level of expertise, where does the trade-off come in other things we are taught? Probably a question for the CELA members, but I guess in the end, it comes down to the questions we are asking in our design processes those we lack answers for. As McCoy mentions, they at Andropogon seek additional knowledge from experts for:
“…soils and soil biology (here, they are interested in “how what’s under the ground affects what’s above the ground”); habitat (“how do we define this?”); native plants (“can they succeed on green roofs?”); climate change; urban heat islands; assisted migration; and plant provenance and ecotypes.”
As a graduate of a State school with a very specific and finely honed technical basis, I had a concentration) in Natural Resource management (this was North Dakota State University where i graduated in 1997). While it wasn’t as refined in terms of how the information related specifically back to design, and in modern terms wasn’t ecological restoration, it was a preliminary ‘ecological’ education that immersed us in systems, soils, plant ecology, biology, and other natural sciences. And it was hard for non-scientists to jump in, as these classes were taught by science professionals, and they didn’t dumb down the content for us designers because they were teaching future scientists. It was up to us to keep up, and many failed miserably. I also had one introductory statistics class in undergraduate education, which was a good overview of how statistical methods work, what methods are out there, and what problems they can be applied to. Did it make me able to perform complex statistical models? No way, but it did give me general understanding of what is possible.
Later, in my doctoral studies in Urban Studies we learned in much greater detail a number of research methods and tools, with quantitative and qualitative requirements, including statistics, part of the basic core knowledge. It was assumed that we were all going to be researchers and scientists, and thus a fundamental skill to have to conduct and interpret research. I gravitated, like many designers I imagine, to GIS based spatial statistics as preferred methodology, because they are both easily applicable at various scales (from the site to urban region), and more easily grasped. That said, there are a number of social- or biological-science specific methods that would be applicable to landscape architecture and ecological design that may not be spatially based.
One side of the equation is designers understanding the tools and methods (or applying these) relevant to the sciences. In this case, the other side of the coin is the innate question of legibility and communication (or dare I say relevance) from scientists working on research and how this applies to research. Ideas need to be able to inform practice, and be accessible to new audiences beyond the academic cycles. This means certain types of research that stems from actual design questions, monitoring of projects through post-occupancy evaluation, etc. One benefit of these higher level collaborations is the blending of creative communication and graphic knowledge with the sciences – which makes ideas and concepts more accessible to designers and clients. Another is perhaps more access to the research (both intellectually and in terms of $$$) as it is often difficult and costly to be up on the latest trends and issues if you are not in academia.
As Patricia Kemper mentions, surveys of master’s level LA program students shows that “while landscape students are getting exposed to the concepts of ecological restoration, they are not typically being taught nuts and bolts of ecological restoration practice.” What those nuts and bolts are is fundamental to an educated and relevant set of future professionals? Err to the side of broad education w/ exposure to a wide array of subjects and we are marginalized for lack of technical specialist knowledge. Err on the side of ecological specialization and we becomes very skilled at a few things, but suffer from lack of relevance to wider issues.
A dilemma for us all as we grapple with what to learn and to what degree, particularly in professions such as landscape architecture and urbanism that require on many levels a broad foundation of knowledge. What you were required to know as a professional has changed much since i started school over 20 years ago, and will continue to do so. The conversations of art versus science has quieted somewhat and there is now shared concept that both are important. We’re still figuring out the integration (consilience) but that will continue to evolve. Does the pendulum swing too far back towards science and causes us to lose the fundamental unique perspective we bring to projects? I hope not, as we definitely need additional knowledge to stay relevant, but we also do best as unifiers and synthesizers, big-picture thinkers, problem solvers, and visionaries.
In honor of Frederick Law Olmsted Sr’s birthday today, April 26 (1822, so let’s call it a round 190!), I would remind folks to go out and read more about the man in the great 2011 biography ‘Genius of Place‘ by Justin Martin (Da Capo Press, 2011). Genius of Place traces Olmsted from his beginnings in 1822 up until his death in 1903. While most well known as the creator of Central Park and in some circles as the father of landscape architecture, it’s telling that much of Olmsted’s life was spent in pursuits aside from park-making and design – in areas of farming, public health, journalism and the literary arts. Martin does a solid job of showing the quirks and uncommon path that Olmsted took through his varied life – captured in the subtitle “Abolitionist, Conservationist, and Designer of Central Park”.
Also worthy of reading is the 2000 biography by Rybczynski ‘A Clearing in the Distance‘ and Erik Larson’s more fantastical page-turner on the 1893 Worlds Columbian Exposion in Chicago in ‘The Devil in the White City‘. Olmsted, as the father of the profession is featured in any manner of great landscape history books (i read a good portion of the entire 7? Volume ‘Papers of Frederick Law Olmsted’ in college) – but for the less nerdy and bibliophilic there’s plenty of summary material and locations to delve into.
While we often question is pastoral scenic aesthetic sensibilities (he was a man of his time), there is much to learn in his tireless work ethic, social sensibility, and focus on ecological as well as public health — providing models for issues that we still grapple with today. We should also emulate his shrewdness in navigating messy politics to further his agenda and get things done, which is something we could use a lot more of these days in our somewhat timid, politically safe professional bunkers.
Celebrate the man and the profession, first by spelling the name correctly, and justly honoring his contribution to our profession, our cities, and our imagination.